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Transcriber's note


Minor punctuation errors have been changed without notice. Printer
errors have been changed and are listed at the end. All other
inconsistencies are as in the original.




HARPER'S NEW MONTHLY MAGAZINE.

No. VIII. - JANUARY, 1851. - VOL. II.




[Illustration: Robert Southey]

PERSONAL APPEARANCE AND HABITS OF ROBERT SOUTHEY.

BY HIS SON.[1]


Being the youngest of all his children, I had not the privilege of
knowing my father in his best and most joyous years, nor of remembering
Greta Hall when the happiness of its circle was unbroken. Much labor and
anxiety, and many sorrows, had passed over him; and although his natural
buoyancy of spirit had not departed, it was greatly subdued, and I
chiefly remember its gradual diminution from year to year.

In appearance he was certainly a very striking looking person, and in
early days he had by many been considered almost the _beau idéal_ of a
poet. Mr. Cottle describes him at the age of twenty-two as "tall,
dignified, possessing great suavity of manners, an eye piercing, a
countenance full of genius, kindliness, and intelligence;" and he
continues, "I had read so much of poetry, and sympathized so much with
poets in all their eccentricities and vicissitudes, that to see before
me the realization of a character which in the abstract so much absorbed
my regards, gave me a degree of satisfaction which it would be difficult
to express." Eighteen years later Lord Byron calls him a prepossessing
looking person, and, with his usual admixture of satire, says, "To have
his head and shoulders I would almost have written his Sapphics;" and
elsewhere he speaks of his appearance as "Epic," an expression which may
be either a sneer or a compliment.

His forehead was very broad; his height was five feet eleven inches; his
complexion rather dark, the eyebrows large and arched, the eye well
shaped and dark brown, the mouth somewhat prominent, muscular, and very
variously expressive, the chin small in proportion to the upper features
of his face. He always, while in Keswick, wore a cap in his walks, and
partly from habit, partly from the make of his head and shoulders, we
never thought he looked well or like himself in a hat. He was of a very
spare frame, but of great activity, and not showing any appearance of a
weak constitution.

My father's countenance, like his character, seems to have softened down
from a certain wildness of expression to a more sober and thoughtful
cast; and many thought him a handsomer man in age than in youth; his eye
retaining always its brilliancy, and his countenance its play of
expression.

The reader will remember his Republican independency when an
under-graduate at Oxford, in rebelling against the supremacy of the
college barber. Though he did not continue to let his hair hang down on
his shoulders according to the whim of his youthful days, yet he always
wore a greater quantity than is usual; and once, on his arrival in town,
Chantrey's first greetings to him were accompanied with an injunction to
go and get his hair cut. When I first remember it, it was turning from a
rich brown to the steel shade, whence it rapidly became almost snowy
white, losing none of its remarkable thickness, and clustering in
abundant curls over his massive brow.

For the following remarks on his general bearing and habits of
conversation I am indebted to a friend:

"The characteristics of his manner, as of his appearance, were lightness
and strength, an easy and happy composure as the accustomed mood, with
much mobility at the same time, so that he could be readily excited into
any degree of animation in discourse, speaking, if the subject moved him
much, with extraordinary fire and force, though always in light, laconic
sentences. When so moved, the fingers of his right hand often rested
against his mouth, and quivered through nervous susceptibility. But,
excitable as he was in conversation, he was never angry or irritable;
nor can there be any greater mistake concerning him than that into which
some persons have fallen, when they have inferred, from the fiery
vehemence with which he could give utterance to moral anger in verse or
prose, that he was personally ill-tempered or irascible. He was, in
truth, a man whom it was hardly possible to quarrel with or offend
personally and face to face; and in his writings, even on public
subjects in which his feelings were strongly engaged, he will be
observed to have always dealt tenderly with those whom he had once seen
and spoken to, unless, indeed, personally and grossly assailed by them.
He said of himself that he was tolerant of persons, though intolerant of
opinions. But in oral intercourse the toleration of persons was so much
the stronger, that the intolerance of opinions was not to be perceived;
and, indeed, it was only in regard to opinions of a pernicious moral
tendency that it was ever felt.

"He was averse from argumentation, and would commonly quit a subject
when it was passing into that shape, with a quiet and good-humored
indication of the view in which he rested. He talked most and with most
interest about books and about public affairs; less, indeed hardly at
all, about the characters and qualities of men in private life. In the
society of strangers or of acquaintances, he seemed to take more
interest in the subjects spoken of than in the persons present, his
manner being that of natural courtesy and general benevolence without
distinction of individuals. Had there been some tincture of social
vanity in him, perhaps he would have been brought into closer relations
with those whom he met in society; but, though invariably kind and
careful of their feelings, he was indifferent to the manner in which
they regarded him, or (as the phrase is) to his _effect_ in society; and
they might, perhaps, be conscious that the kindness they received was
what flowed naturally and inevitably to all, that they had nothing to
give in return which was of value to him, and that no individual
relations were established.

"In conversation with intimate friends he would sometimes express, half
humorously, a cordial commendation of some production of his own,
knowing that with them he could afford it, and that to those who knew
him well it was well known that there was no vanity in him. But such
commendations, though light and humorous, were perfectly sincere; for he
both possessed and cherished the power of finding enjoyment and
satisfaction wherever it was to be found - in his own books, in the books
of his friends, and in all books whatsoever that were not morally
tainted or absolutely barren."

His course of life was the most regular and simple possible. When it is
said that breakfast was at nine, after a little reading,[2] dinner at
four, tea at six, supper at half-past nine, and the intervals filled up
with reading or writing, except that he regularly walked between two and
four, and took a short sleep before tea, the outline of his day during
those long seasons when he was in full work will have been given. After
supper, when the business of the day seemed to be over, though he
generally took a book, he remained with his family, and was open to
enter into conversation, to amuse and to be amused. It was on such times
that the most pleasant fireside chattings, and the most interesting
stories came forth; and, indeed, it was at such a time (though long
before my day) that The Doctor was originated, as may be seen by the
beginning of that work and the Preface to the new edition.
Notwithstanding that the very mention of "my glass of punch," the one,
temperate, never exceeded glass of punch, may be a stumbling-block to
some of my readers, I am constrained, by the very love of the perfect
picture which the first lines of The Doctor convey of the conclusion of
his evening, to transcribe them in this place. It was written but for a
few, otherwise The Doctor would have been no secret at all; but those
few who knew him in his home will see his very look while they re-peruse
it, and will recall the well-known sound:

"I was in the fourth night of the story of the Doctor and his horse, and
had broken it off, not, like Scheherazade, because it was time to get
up, but because it was time to go to bed. It was at thirty-five minutes
after ten o'clock on the 20th of July, in the year of our Lord 1813. I
finished my glass of punch, tinkled the spoon against its side, as if
making music to my own meditations, and having fixed my eyes upon the
Bhow Begum, who was sitting opposite to me at the head of her own table,
I said, 'It ought to be written in a book.'"

This scene took place at the table of the Bhow Begum,[3] but it may
easily be transferred to his ordinary room, where he sat after supper in
one corner, with the fire on his left hand and a small table on his
right, looking on at his family circle in front of him.

I have said before, as indeed his own letters have abundantly shown,
that he was a most thoroughly domestic man, in that his whole pleasure
and happiness was centred in his home; but yet, from the course of his
pursuits, his family necessarily saw but little of him. He could not,
however he might wish it, join the summer evening walk, or make one of
the circle round the winter hearth, or even spare time for conversation
after the family meals (except during the brief space I have just been
speaking of). Every day, every hour had its allotted employment; always
were there engagements to publishers imperatively requiring punctual
fulfillment; always the current expenses of a large household to take
anxious thoughts for: he had no crops growing while he was idle. "My
ways," he used to say, "are as broad as the king's high road, and my
means lie in an ink-stand."

Yet, notwithstanding the value which every moment of his time thus
necessarily bore, unlike most literary men, he was never ruffled in the
slightest degree by the interruptions of his family, even on the most
trivial occasions; the book or the pen was ever laid down with a smile,
and he was ready to answer any question, or to enter with youthful
readiness into any temporary topic of amusement or interest.

In earlier years he spoke of himself as ill calculated for general
society, from a habit of uttering single significant sentences, which,
from being delivered without any qualifying clauses, bore more meaning
upon their surface than he intended, and through which his real opinions
and feelings were often misunderstood. This habit, as far as my own
observation went, though it was sometimes apparent, he had materially
checked in later life, and in large parties he was usually inclined to
be silent, rarely joining in general conversation. But he was very
different when with only one or two companions; and to those strangers,
who came to him with letters of introduction, he was both extremely
courteous in manner, and frank and pleasant in conversation, and to his
intimates no one could have been more wholly unreserved, more disposed
to give and receive pleasure, or more ready to pour forth his vast
stores of information upon almost every subject.

I might go on here, and enter more at length into details of his
personal character, but the task is too difficult a one, and is perhaps,
after all, better left unattempted. A most intimate and highly-valued
friend of my father's, whom I wished to have supplied me with some
passages on these points, remarks very justly, that "any portraiture of
him, by the pen as by the pencil, will fall so far short both of the
truth and the ideal which the readers of his poetry and his letters will
have formed for themselves, that they would be worse than superfluous."
And, indeed, perhaps I have already said too much. I can not, however,
resist quoting here some lines by the friend above alluded to, which
describe admirably in brief my father's whole character:

"Two friends
Lent me a further light, whose equal hate
On all unwholesome sentiment attends,
Nor whom may genius charm where heart infirm attends.

"In all things else contrarious were these two:
The one a man upon whose laureled brow
Gray hairs were growing! glory ever new
Shall circle him in after years as now;
For spent detraction may not disavow
The world of knowledge with the wit combined,
The elastic force no burden e'er could bow,
The various talents and the single mind,
Which give him moral power and mastery o'er mankind.

"His sixty summers - what are they in truth?
By Providence peculiarly blest,
With him the strong hilarity of youth
Abides, despite gray hairs, a constant guest,
His sun has veered a point toward the west,
But light as dawn his heart is glowing yet -
That heart the simplest, gentlest, kindliest, best,
Where truth and manly tenderness are met
With faith and heavenward hope, the suns that never set."[4]

What further I will venture to say relates chiefly to the external
circumstances of his life at Keswick.

His greatest relaxation was in a mountain excursion or a pic-nic by the
side of one of the lakes, tarns, or streams; and these parties, of which
he was the life and soul, will long live in the recollections of those
who shared them. An excellent pedestrian (thinking little of a walk of
twenty-five miles when upward of sixty), he usually headed the
"infantry" on these occasions, looking on those gentlemen as idle
mortals who indulged in the luxury of a mountain pony; feeling very
differently in the bracing air of Cumberland to what he did in Spain in
1800, when he delighted in being "gloriously lazy," in "sitting sideways
upon an ass," and having even a boy to "propel" the burro.

Upon first coming down to the Lakes he rather undervalued the pleasures
of an al-fresco repast, preferring chairs and tables to the greensward
of the mountains, or the moss-grown masses of rock by the lake shore;
but these were probably the impressions of a cold, wet summer, and
having soon learned thoroughly to appreciate these pleasures, he had his
various chosen places which he thought it a sort of duty annually to
revisit. Of these I will name a few, as giving them, perhaps, an added
interest to some future tourists. The summit of Skiddaw he regularly
visited, often three or four times in a summer, but the view thence was
not one he greatly admired. Sea-Fell and Helvellyn he ranked much
higher, but on account of their distance did not often reach. Saddleback
and Causey Pike, two mountains rarely ascended by tourists, were great
favorites with him, and were the summits most frequently chosen for a
grand expedition; and the two tarns upon Saddleback, Threlkeld and
Bowscale tarns, were among the spots he thought most remarkable for
grand and lonely beauty. This, too, was ground rendered more than
commonly interesting, by having been the scenes of the childhood and
early life of Clifford the Shepherd Lord. The rocky streams of
Borrowdale, high up beyond Stonethwaite and Seathwaite, were also places
often visited, especially one beautiful spot, where the river makes a
sharp bend at the foot of Eagle Crag. The pass of Honistar Crag, leading
from Buttermere to Borrowdale, furnished a longer excursion, which was
occasionally taken with a sort of rustic pomp in the rough market carts
of the country, before the cars which are now so generally used had
become common, or been permitted by their owners to travel that worst of
all roads. Occasionally there were grand meetings with Mr. Wordsworth,
and his family and friends, at Leatheswater (or Thirlmere), a point
about half way between Keswick and Rydal; and here as many as fifty
persons have sometimes met together from both sides of the country.
These were days of great enjoyment, not to be forgotten.

[Illustration: VALE OF WATENLATH.]

There was also an infinite variety of long walks, of which he could take
advantage when opportunity served, without the preparation and trouble
of a preconcerted expedition: several of these are alluded to in his
Colloquies. The circuit formed by passing behind Barrow and Lodore to
the vale of Watenlath, placed up high among the hills, with its own
little lake and village, and the rugged path leading thence down to
Borrowdale, was one of the walks he most admired. The beautiful vale of
St. Johns, with its "Castle Rock" and picturesquely placed little
church, was another favorite walk; and there were a number of springs of
unusual copiousness situated near what had been apparently a deserted,
and now ruined village, where he used to take luncheon. The rocky bed of
the little stream at the foot of Causey Pike was a spot he loved to rest
at; and the deep pools of the stream that flows down the adjoining
valley of New Lands -

"Whose pure and chrysolite waters
Flow o'er a schistose bed,"

formed one of his favorite resorts for bathing.

Yet these excursions, although for a few years he still continued to
enjoy them, began in later life to wear to him something of a melancholy
aspect. So many friends were dead who had formerly shared them, and his
own domestic losses were but too vividly called to mind with the
remembrance of former days of enjoyment, the very grandeur of the
scenery around many of the chosen places, and the unchanging features of
the "everlasting hills," brought back forcibly sad memories, and these
parties became in time so painful that it was with difficulty he could
be prevailed upon to join in them.

He concealed, indeed, as the reader has seen, beneath a reserved manner,
a most acutely sensitive mind, and a warmth and kindliness of feeling
which was only understood by few, indeed, perhaps, not thoroughly by
any. He said, speaking of the death of his uncle, Mr. Hill, that one of
the sources of consolation to him was the thought that perhaps the
departed might then be conscious how truly he had loved and honored him;
and I believe the depth of his affection and the warmth of his
friendship was known to none but himself. On one particular point I
remember his often regretting his constitutional bashfulness and
reserve; and that was, because, added to his retired life and the nature
of his pursuits, it prevented him from knowing any thing of the persons
among whom he lived. Long as he had resided at Keswick, I do not think
there were twenty persons in the lower class whom he knew by sight; and
though this was in some measure owing to a slight degree of
short-sightedness, which, contrary to what is usual, came on in later
life, yet I have heard him often lament it as not being what he thought
right; and after slightly returning the salutation of some passer by, he
would again mechanically lift his cap as he heard some well-known name
in reply to his inquiries, and look back with regret that the greeting
had not been more cordial. With those persons who were occasionally
employed about the house he was most familiarly friendly, and these
regarded him with a degree of affectionate reverence that could not be
surpassed.

It may perhaps be expected by some readers that a more accurate account
of my father's income should be given than has yet appeared; but this is
not an easy matter, from its extreme variableness, and this it was that
constituted a continual source of uneasiness both to others and to
himself, rarely as he acknowledged it. A common error has been to speak
of him as one to whom literature has been a mine of wealth. That his
political opponents should do this is not so strange; but even Charles
Lamb, who, if he had thought a little, would hardly have written so
rashly, says, in a letter to Bernard Barton, recently published, that
"Southey has made a fortune by book drudgery." What sort of a "fortune"
that was which never once permitted him to have one year's income
beforehand, and compelled him almost always to forestall the profit of
his new works, the reader may imagine.

His only certain source of income[5] was his pension, from which he
received £145, and the Laureateship, which was £90: the larger portion
of these two sums, however, went to the payment of his life-insurance,
so that not more than £100 could be calculated upon as available, and
the Quarterly Review was therefore for many years his chief means of
support. He received latterly £100 for an article, and commonly
furnished one for each number. What more was needful had to be made up
by his other works, which as they were always published upon the terms
of the publisher taking the risk and sharing the profits, produced him
but little, considering the length of time they were often in
preparation, and as he was constantly adding new purchases to his
library, but little was to be reckoned upon this account. For the
Peninsular War he received £1000, but the copyright remained the
property of the publisher.

With regard to his mode of life, although it was as simple and
inexpensive as possible, his expenditure was with difficulty kept within
his income, though he had indeed a most faithful helpmate, who combined
with a wise and careful economy a liberality equal to his own in any
case of distress. One reason for this difficulty was, that considerable
sums were, not now and then, but regularly, drawn from him by his less
successful relatives.

The house which for so many years was his residence at Keswick, though
well situated both for convenience and for beauty of prospect, was
unattractive in external appearance, and to most families would have
been an undesirable residence. Having originally been two houses,
afterward thrown together, it consisted of a good many small rooms,
connected by long passages, all of which with great ingenuity he made
available for holding books, with which indeed the house was lined from
top to bottom. His own sitting-room, which was the largest in the house,
was filled with the handsomest of them, arranged with much taste,
according to his own fashion, with due regard to size, color, and
condition; and he used to contemplate these, his carefully accumulated
and much prized treasures, with even more pleasure and pride than the
greatest connoisseur his finest specimens of the old masters: and
justly, for they were both the necessaries and the luxuries of life to
him; both the very instruments whereby he won, hardly enough, his daily
bread, and the source of all his pleasures and recreations - the pride of
his eyes and the joy of his heart.

His Spanish and Portuguese collection, which at one time was one of the
best, if not itself the best to be found in the possession of any
private individual, was the most highly-prized portion of his library.
It had been commenced by his uncle, Mr. Hill, long prior to my father's
first visit to Lisbon; and having originated in the love Mr. Hill
himself had for the literature of those countries, it was carried
forward with more ardor when he found that his nephew's taste and
abilities were likely to turn it to good account. It comprised a
considerable number of manuscripts, some of them copied by Mr. Hill from
rare MSS. in private and convent libraries.

Many of these old books being in vellum or parchment bindings, he had
taken much pains to render them ornamental portions of the furniture of
his shelves. His brother Thomas was skillful in calligraphy; and by his
assistance their backs were painted with some bright color, and upon it
the title placed lengthwise in large gold letters of the old English
type. Any one who had visited his library will remember the
tastefully-arranged pyramids of these curious-looking books.

Another fancy of his was to have all those books of lesser value, which
had become ragged and dirty, covered, or rather bound, in colored cotton
prints, for the sake of making them clean and respectable in their
appearance, it being impossible to afford the cost of having so many put
into better bindings.

Of this task his daughters, aided by any female friends who might be
staying with them, were the performers; and not fewer than from 1200 to
1400 volumes were so bound by them at different times, filling
completely one room, which he designated as the Cottonian library. With
this work he was much interested and amused, as the ladies would often
suit the pattern to the contents, clothing a Quaker work or a book of
sermons in sober drab, poetry in some flowery design, and sometimes
contriving a sly piece of satire at the contents of some well-known
author by their choice of its covering. One considerable convenience
attended this eccentric mode of binding - the book became as well known



Online LibraryVariousHarper's New Monthly Magazine, Vol. 2, No. 8, January, 1851 → online text (page 1 of 35)